Long on Words, Short on Understanding

The Open Source Initiative is not the only organization with ideas about how to better understand, and thus develop and exploit software. At the opposite end of the spectrum seems to be The Progress and Freedom Foundation, and their Senior Fellow, James DeLong, who has just posted a new and thoroughly confusing article that appears to praise Open Source and the OSI, but for no valid reasons.

The article I read just prior to DeLong’s piece (and to which I will return momentarily) was this piece from another respected journal: The Onion. Please read Experts call for restrictions on childhood imagination and then come back. It finishes with the quote:

“Remember, if you see a single sparkle of excitement in their eyes, you haven’t done enough.”

You are now ready to read James DeLong’s Opening up an open-source roadblock, because his characterization of both the free software movement and the open source movement would be considered satire if written by authors actually from either community.

First off, the free software movement does not consider markets irrelevant, it just does not treat markets as so absolute that any other issue other than the market is irrelevant. Indeed, when Richard Stallman wrote The GNU Manifesto in 1984, fully 12 of the 13 “easily rebutted objections” to the idea of free software concerned market and competitive forces, and only one dealt with morality. The market was a highly relevant force in Stallman’s mind back in 1984, and it was these writings that encouraged me to start the first company based exclusively on free software back in 1989. I invested $2000 in cash (and wrote a note for another $3000 which I paid off within a year from paychecks I earned from the company), ultimately sold that company to Red Hat for considerably more money in January 2000.

Next, DeLong asserts that Microsoft and Novell are the antithesis of religions, but his arguement is circular: how can a professed dogmatic adherence to commercialism be considered any less of a religious predilection than holding a high ethical standard with respect to sharing?

DeLong asserts, and I agree, that

Customers also want freedom from concern about potential intellectual property problems. They do not want to worry whether someone might come out of left field claiming the right to enjoin some mission-critical application.

The fundamental question is how best to accomplish this. The FSF has always been rigorous about collecting and maintaining copyright assignments, precisely so that nobody can come out of left field and enjoin GNU software. By contrast, proprietary software companies have for years been accused of (and have settled, one way or another) hundreds of cases of copyright violation and outright theft. Thus, the license itself does not protect against a suit–it is the practices of the authors and the vendors that are judged.

Moreover, a license like the GPL provide customers with a straightforward and fair deal, one that cannot be leveraged by a monopoly party to extract rent, force upgrades, or the worst of both worlds, the extraction of rent (which has a financial cost) by the forcing of upgrades (which is a hassle to boot).

The real reason DeLong does not understand what the GPL offers, or, for that matter, what the open source community desires, is because his agenda rejects what we hold to be self-evident. He hears only that which is denominated by strong, unitary property rights, and he reports as viable only that which supports his agenda. He simply does not hear the modern, post-property benefits that accrue to those who, ironically, focus on what he considers to be the ultimate power base: the customer.

Which brings me back to the question of satire. I actually agree with DeLong’s ultimate profession that we must find new and valuable ways to serve customers and markets, just like I believe we need to be mindful of the need to provide children with safe environments. But I believe he has grasped his answer too quickly, and, having apprehended it (and the paycheck that comes with it), he will not let go, even when a better method has been demonstrated so effectively as Free Software and Open Source has done.